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Israel Opens Safe-Passageway Between Gaza and West Bank

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- EREZ CROSSING, Gaza Strip

Israel on Monday opened a safe-passage corridor that links the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and West Bank, allowing hundreds of Palestinians for the first time to traverse the Jewish state in search of a taste of freedom, a long-unseen relative, or a job.

Most of the early travelers along the 34-mile route were young men armed with new permits and delighted to abandon the Gaza Strip.

“I never even dreamt of this,” said Sami Abu Shaar, a 22-year-old sewing factory worker bound for Bethlehem. Like many others, Shaar was making his first foray outside the stifling borders of crowded Gaza, a desolate 140-square-mile patch of sand with nearly 1 million people and soaring unemployment.

“Gaza is too much like a prison,” Jihad Fahed Aff, a 28-year-old father of two, said before boarding a bus. “Everywhere is closed to us. I want to see Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin. Now I will see my country.”

Israel and the Palestinians agreed six years ago to improve freedom of movement between the two Palestinian enclaves, but the safe passage was never opened, in part because of Israeli fears that it would allow terrorists to infiltrate Israeli territory. For average Palestinians, safe passage may be the single most significant step in the peace process because of its potential to improve their daily lives -- especially in Gaza, hemmed in as it is by Egypt to the south, the Mediterranean to the west and Israel.

Only Palestinians with hard-to-get work permits have been able to enter Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, and they could not leave one Palestinian enclave and cross Israel to enter the other.

Israel controls access to the West Bank and Gaza. In another peace gesture on Monday, Israel gave permission for an exiled hard-line Palestinian militant to enter Palestinian-ruled land. Nayef Hawatmeh, who the Israelis hold responsible for a 1974 terrorist attack that killed 24 Israeli high school students, opposed peace with Israel for many years but has taken a more conciliatory stance recently and is making amends with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

The safe-passage route is intended to accommodate 1,000 people a day, authorities said. The Palestinians who travel the route are still subject to Israeli security checks. Only Palestinians cleared by Israel are issued the magnetic identification cards they need to use the corridor. The cards are valid for one year.

Those considered a potential threat must travel in twice-weekly escorted buses.

Travelers’ luggage is X-rayed, their crossing of Israel is held to strict timing, and they may not stop along the way.

Nevertheless, Palestinian officials see the land link as another boost to their desire to establish an independent state within a year by uniting the enclaves and their people.

The mood was festive aboard the first bus to make the journey Monday morning. The young men, with duffel bags and packed falafel lunches, sang Egyptian pop songs, clapped and celebrated. One passenger attempted to quiet them down periodically, begging for good behavior lest the Israelis be given a pretext to stop the bus and send it back home.

There was no Israeli escort for the bus.

The driver, a Palestinian, played the part of a tour bus chauffeur. Using a microphone, the driver announced the landmarks as they passed, including the ruins of an Arab village and the site of a legendary battle from the 1948 war that formed Israel. He gave the old pre-Israel Palestinian names for various villages.

Outside, the sparsely populated countryside rolled by. Cotton fields and lush orchards, a few housing developments under construction. American-style gasoline stations. An occasional Israeli army patrol.

Hatem Abu Muhsin, 22, marveled at the huge eucalyptus trees he saw. “If we had these trees in Gaza we’d have chopped them down by now for firewood,” the third-year law student said quietly, his face glued to the window. “This is a beautiful country.”

As expected, the safe-passage route -- which spans Israel military checkpoints between Gaza’s Erez and the West Bank’s Tarkumiyah -- will at first be used primarily by those seeking to escape Gaza, where officials say 2,000 people have already applied for safe-passage permits.

By nightfall, 426 Palestinians in 11 taxis and eight buses had traveled from Gaza to the West Bank, and 17 Palestinians traveled in the opposite direction, Israeli army spokesman Shlomo Dror said.

Eventually, Palestinians will be allowed to drive private cars along the route, too. Israelis will put a sticker on the car when it starts its journey and note the time. If it does not appear at the other end in a set amount of time, authorities will start searching for it.